Progressivism in Practice

Everybody has an explanation for the Democrats’ calamitous performance yesterday.

The conventional wisdom, it seems, is that the Democratic losses marked a repudiation of Obama’s excessive liberalism. “It is clear that Democrats over-interpreted our mandate,” says outgoing Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. The stimulus and healthcare reform were a bridge too far for our center-right nation. The solution, the pundits tell us, is for Obama to move to the middle ala Bill Clinton after the 1994 Republican landslide into power. In particular, Obama must embrace deficit reduction as a focus of his next two years in office.

Please. If pushing healthcare reform arguably less sweeping than 2012 Republican aspirant Mitt Romney’s 2006 healthcare law in Massachusetts and enacting a less-than-audacious stimulus plan in the face of the second Great Depression is too radical for the electorate, we might as well just make Sharron Angle president and all go home.

The left sees it just the opposite. Democrats were punished for failing to deliver on the progressive agenda they promised in 2008. The failure of the public option, the death of cap-and-trade and the Administration’s coziness with Wall Street alienated the key constituencies—young people, minorities, women—that propelled Obama to the presidency, and reinforced broader disillusionment with Washington’s inability to get anything done. Tacking rightwards is most certainly not the solution. As proof, liberal pundits have taken to citing the body blow dealt to the conservative Blue Dog caucus in the Democratic Party, whose ranks shrunk from 54 to 26 by the end of last night.

Saying the Blue Dogs lost because they were too conservative, or opposed healthcare or the stimulus is overly simplistic, however. The Blue Dogs come overwhelmingly from conservative districts; many were elected on the wings of the anti-Republican backlashes in 2006 and 2008, when even reliably Republican districts decided they’d give a Democrat a chance. In an anti-Democrat environment this go-around, it’s no surprise they were the hardest hit.

The White House’s explanation is a slight variation on the left’s theme. It’s not that the Administration has been insufficiently progressive or that the public is averse to a progressive agenda. It’s, what Peter Baker called in his recent New York Times profile of Obama, “the communication problem.” “If only I explained what I was doing better, the people would be more supportive.” I.e. If only the public knew how progressive our accomplishments have been—how hard we’ve stuck it to Wall Street, how much we’ve helped low-income college students, how heroically we saved the economy from a second Great Depression—we’d be in much better shape.

The argument isn’t entirely wrong. The spin doctors of the right are light years ahead of their counterparts on the left. Nor has the White House done itself too many favors. A poll last month found that fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans. Why? Because instead of administering the tax cut in the form of a big fat rebate check, as the Bush administration did, the Obama administration simply withheld less tax money from people’s paychecks, since they figured the latter approach would induce greater consumer spending.

The problem with both of the last two explanations, though, is that they view progressivism as an end in itself. For many on the left, it’s been the broken promise of a progressive revival that’s cost Democrats. Through his failure to pursue the progressive agenda he campaigned on, the president has ceded the momentum his 2008 victory produced. He had the leg up in the battle of ideas between liberals and conservatives, but by capitulating on the public option and surrendering on cap-and-trade without so much as a whimper, he sacrificed the liberal edge.  For the White House, the backlash has come from an inability to demonstrate that the president has in fact kept his promises. The campaign agenda remains popular; people just don’t know it’s being implemented.

The left is right to claim that Democrats suffered in this election from a president and party that were insufficiently progressive, but not because progressive ideas would carry the day if only they were wholeheartedly embraced by Democrats. Barack Obama did not become president because he convinced voters to choose liberalism over conservatism. Democrats did not lose yesterday because Republicans convinced voters to choose conservatism over liberalism. In both cases, dissatisfied voters kicked out those in power in response to concrete factors (the economy, above all).

Progressivism’s triumph will not occur when progressive policies are proven right at some abstract level. No matter how illogical John Boehner’s pledges are and no matter how persuasive Barack Obama is, true progressivism will only triumph when it is proven right in practice. That’s why the lowballed stimulus package or the failure to insist that banks lend as a condition of receiving bailout money were so disappointing. There was, in that window, a fleeting opportunity to prove progressivism right—to deliver tangible results through progressive policy. Perhaps the president averted a political fight in the near-term, but in the long-term he left the door open, in light of ten percent unemployment and record foreclosures, for the right to discredit progressivism and to insist against all logic that cutting deficits will revitalize the economy and that tax cuts will pay for themselves.

The progressive moment is now gone. If it wasn’t going to happen with a 39-seat majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, it’s certainly not going to happen with a Republican House and slim Senate majority. And so we’re left to make the best of new realities—and ensure, for the country’s sake, that conservative policies don’t have a chance, once again, to prove themselves dismally wrong.

Update (11/4): William Galston at The New Republic has a very different take. According to Galston, “It’s the Ideology, Stupid.” Citing statistical trends from the past two decades, Galston argues that the electorate is simply becoming more conservative. Galston notes, “In 1992, moderates were 43 percent of the total; in 2006, 38 percent; today, only 35 percent.” And yet, Democrats swept into power in Congress in 2006, and the quite clearly liberal Barack Obama won in a landslide in 2008 on a platform of universal healthcare, ending the Bush-era tax cuts, etc. The takeaway should be that for most of the electorate, these labels are irrelevant. Voters respond to current conditions–often irrationally, I would argue–but still not to primarily ideological appeals. Hence, the constant lurching from one side to the other. Q.E.D., the ideology that will win will be the one that can prove it can deliver concrete results, and progressives only hurt themselves by sacrificing results in order to better align themselves with the worthless statistics bandied about by Galston.

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